Getting in Our Own Way

Research explains how to overcome learned helplessness.

Posted Jul 27, 2018

In this post, I thought I would give a quick overview of some of the research that underlies my new book, The Boundless Life Challenge. The psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman pioneered some of the early work on learned helplessness. In one study that he describes in Learned Optimism, dogs were divided into three groups for a controlled study to see whether helplessness could actually be inculcated in experimental subjects. In an experiment that took place in the 1960s, dogs were placed into a “shuttlebox” with two compartments separated by a low divider that the dogs could easily leap. The floor of the compartment was electrocuted, and the dogs could escape the shock by jumping to the other side. In some variants of the experiment, the dog would have to press a lever to get the shock to stop. Sounds were also employed through classical conditioning so that the dogs would know when to expect the shock. Dogs in group A had complete control over the lever and could easily stop the shocks from happening. Dogs in group B, the “yoked” group, were completely tied to what happened in the A group: their levers actually did not work. The lucky dogs in group C, the control group, received no shocks at all and could jump back and forth across the divider as they saw fit. It is worth noting that such experiments seem perverse today, but they were common at the time.

According to the behaviorist theories prevalent at the time, the dogs in the first two groups should behave in the same way, to move away from the shock. As a loose description of behaviorism, the dogs were thought to be more or less programmed to seek rewards and avoid punishments. We should expect all of the dogs to jump at the feeling of the shock, but that is not what happened. The dogs in the A group did, indeed, jump over the barrier to press the lever and avoid the shock, but the dogs in group B stopped trying to avoid the shock and would simply lie down on the floor and whimper when the shock was applied. The group A dogs had control over their situations, while the group B dogs did not. The experiment managed to prove a negative: that helplessness could be taught. Even if control were restored to dogs in the B group, they would continue with the helpless behavior. Subsequent similar experiments performed on human beings proved that we, too, can learn helplessness. Outside the laboratory, a student who performs poorly in school for a few years may begin to generalize that experience and conclude that he or she is simply stupid. This person may take what amounts to something incidental and relatively minor and take it to be a defining and pervasive feature. Or suppose someone constantly tries crash diets, and they don’t work. That person might say, “I just can never lose weight,” rather than asking whether that particular approach was wrong.

Tim Gouw, Pexels
Source: Tim Gouw, Pexels

In a study conducted by Kostka and Jachimowicz (2010) on three populations of elderly individuals in Poland, the authors tested three closely related traits: dispositional optimism, the tendency to be involved in life activities and expect a good future, self-efficacy, the belief that one’s actions will tend to reach a desired result, and internal health locus of control, the belief that one can control health outcomes with one’s own activity. All three of these traits were measured on the participants using standardized inventories on the participants, who lived in three different types of environments. Each group had around a hundred members, the first living independently in the community, the second group in assisted living, and the third group in long-term care. As you might expect, the seniors who were more independent reported greater satisfaction with life, but, across all three groups, the elderly who expressed dispositional optimism, high self-efficacy, and internal locus of control, had better health outcomes and longer life spans across all three groups. While we have to be careful about reading too much into these findings, it seems that optimism and its related traits lead to higher levels of life satisfaction, better health outcomes, and increased independence. While the link in this study is a correlation, and causation is much harder to isolate, it seems likely that certain habits and attitudes lead to better life outcomes. Those who believe that they have control over their lives, that they can affect the future, actually achieve greater health and happiness.   

A study by Sarah Baker (2006) followed an opposite population from the Poland study on the elderly: college and graduate students at a university in the UK. This small group of 39 students were asked to keep a daily diary that evaluated mood, exercise habits, drug and alcohol intake, and the experience of life difficulties. The students also completed a standardized inventory of optimistic traits three different times during the study. Baker reports that the students who expressed higher levels of optimism were also more likely to exercise and engage in social activity than the students with lower moods. The optimistic students also experience fewer everyday stressors than those who were less optimistic: they actually seemed less bothered by the little inconveniences and annoyances of life. The optimistic college students did tend to drink and smoke, which is one unhealthy behavior perhaps related to increased social life in the collegiate environment. The optimistic students may have a had a youthful feeling of indestructibility that led them to think that social smoking and drinking would not affect them. By most measures, however, the optimistic group fared better in measures of mental resilience and physical conditioning. It is possible that the more optimistic students were just failing to report negative experiences, or that they were over-reporting healthy behaviors like exercise. But it is clear that, from a subjective point of view, they seemed, to themselves, to be living happier lives. And of course, we all inhabit a subjective point of view. It is this subjective point of view that governs behaviors, and, over long periods of time, leads to genuinely different outcomes in terms of happiness and well-being.

Learned helplessness is the opposite of self-efficacy. It is the belief that what we do ultimately does not matter, that we will be stuck in the same life patterns no matter what we think, say, or do. When we learn to view ourselves as helpless, we give away our personal power, falling to the trap of futility and resignation. Learned helplessness stems from a generalization from previous experience: things have always been this way,  therefore they will always be this way. The generalization is faulty, because it does not distinguish between a condition that is merely long-lasting and one that is permanent. Conditions change when the underlying features that give rise to them change. There is a certain inertia that must be overcome when we want to change beliefs and habits, but the amount of energy that must be put into the necessary change is not infinite. A rocket has to have a certain escape velocity to escape from the gravitational pull of a planet: that energy is large, but finite and calculable. In the same way, if we have been living in a certain way for decades, it will be hard to change, which is to say, hard but not impossible. The things that we take for granted, the pervasive features of our lives, have attained that status simply because we accepted them as given. When we no longer view them as given, but instead as malleable and negotiable, we open a space of possibility.  The more we learn about learned helplessness, the less we will be trapped by it.